British hire-boat firms attract customers from around the world to spend a week or two in a steel box, crawling along a ditch sometimes only twice as wide as the boat – and they come back over and over again and even buy boats themselves – so where is the magic?
Hiring a boat is the first step off the bank and onto the water for most people. It is a giant leap for some as they discover for the first time whether that idyllic vision of slow-moving boats sliding through the countryside really is for them.
It was a three-day hire on the southern end of the Shropshire Union nearly 20 years ago that led us to buy our first boat within months, followed by two more boats and, nearly a decade ago moving to a home afloat.
Ian Clarke, who runs Pennine Cruisers with his wife Pamela and daughter Zoe. has a fleet of six day boats alongside their holiday hire fleet in Skipton, Yorkshire, and he has seen it happen.
Ian who lives on a boat himself, said: “For many people it is a spur of the moment thing. They see a boating holiday advertised and decide to try it or they just turn up in a place like Skipton and decide it would be exciting to take a day boat out for a few hours.
“The chances are that they have been walking by the canal for years or perhaps they have happy memories of a childhood family holiday on a boat and want to repeat that for themselves.”
He says it simply doesn't suit a small minority but many go on to hire from Pennine Cruisers three or four times. “That is about the maximum before they go on to hire in another area or even buy a boat or a boat-share themselves.”
In Ian's estimation only a small proportion go on to be boat owners – less than five per cent. He said: “Even if people can afford a boat they are time-poor and they just don't have the spare time to get good value from owning a boat.
“Only those who have become slightly addicted to the waterways and have a bit more time for themselves will be a boat for weekends and holidays, and that's why most boat owners are older.
“There are those that decide they want to live on a boat but we try to warn them it is not a cheap way of life and emphasise they need to be really certain they can do it before that sell-up and move aboard.”
Despite that there are now around 10,000 more privately-owned boats on the Canal and River Trust system than there were a decade earlier, and many of them will have had their first taste of boating through a hire company, which makes them essential ambassadors for the waterways.
There are more than 1,800 hire boats in the UK, according to the latest figures and in the 2011 season they hosted 615,494 “bed-nights” - so a lot of people got a taste of boating on our inland waterways.
It is probably the boats and the waterways themselves that seal the deal, both for deciding on a boating holiday and, for some, going on to own a boat. That magical feel of being somewhere apart from everyday life, yet still having the comforts of home, watching the buzzards circling high above the fields as you chug gently along the cut and then being able to relax in the comfortable cabin of your boat while the rest of the world walks past your windows.
And the view changes every day, with over 2,000 miles to chose from that include some of our country's most beautiful scenery but also offers the buzz of major cities, like London, Birmingham and Manchester.
What do boaters and wannabe boaters believe turned them from spectators? I asked members of the Facebook group Get Afloat.
Sometimes a family history of boating plays a key role as Don Harrison told me: “With my parents we twice had a week on the Norfolk Broads before my dad bought a 22ft plastic boat near where we lived. We fitted it out on the Paddington Arm.
“We got the bug and Dad bought a 36ft steel narrow boat hull, put the roof on, fitted a 1.5 BMC Diesel Engine and fitted it out inside. We had about 10 years wonderful years fun. I recommend it to all over you who have still to take the pledge.”
Others use hiring a test bed for their dreams and Mark Bratt said: “I hired a narrowboat for the first time in July 2011 with my wife Ruth. We did this because we believed there was an opportunity for re-inventing the old hostel boat concept. There was, and we did!” They operated the Wandering Duck hostel boat until it went up for sale last year.
Alan Sharkey told me: “Coming from Liverpool a week on the Broads in my early twenties was like visiting a different planet. The whole experience was such a joy, it changed my life forever.”
Sometimes it is simply random as Michelle Bushby recalls: “Our friends were given a weeks boat hire as a wedding present from Simon Jenkins at Norbury Wharf, so we decided to hire a boat and go with them. My husband really didn't want to go, but now we're hooked. We've got our second trip coming up on the Llangollen next month.”
Paul Ost, the organiser of the Get Afloat group said he had never considered boating until his new in laws organised a big family holiday on the Llangollen with two boats from Dartline. He said: “I have been smitten ever since. I never realised I could still escape and explore in Britain and it made me appreciate what a wonderful country we have.”
For others it is about places and Don Harrison recalled: “I loved the Llangollen Canal. Its yet another place so beautiful and different from anywhere else on the Canal system.
Television plays an introductory role for many, and Steve Lansdowne recalled watching Water World on a satellite channel. “As we had some extra cash spare I suggested we gave a boating holiday a try. So we booked a week with Shire Cruisers on their boat Devon.”
Hiring sometimes lead to buying a share in a boat and Gill Lockett recalled: “We hired a 'day boat' on the Llangollen to go over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, as an aunt has cancer and it was one of her must do things before she's no longer here.
“That was June 2012, by December 2012 we had purchased a four-week share in Sceptre. We were hooked after just one day!! Love, love, love it! Cannot wait to buy our own boat. Love the cut!”
It is not just boating but the whole waterways business that appeals to some. Linda Andrews went further than most, as she explained: “I got hooked on one trip, subsequently bought a boat, spent nine years living aboard and loved every minute, and now we have Cheshire Cat Narrowboat holidays, our little hire company with four boats, and an RYA narrowboat training centre. Be warned - it is seriously addictive!”
So that goes some way to explaining why people hire and why some of them move on to become fully committed boaters.
If you want to get the best out of your first boating experiences I wouldn't argue with the Canal and River Trust's advice to choose a place that you've previously fallen in love with or an area that you've always wanted to explore, and then do so by water.
But I would add an honest plea for a new hirer to avoid setting ambitious targets for travelling long distances to complete a canal 'ring' or specific journey. Yes, in theory your boat will travel at 3-4 mph and you can cruise eight or ten hours a day in summer – but that is missing the point.
Quite apart from building in frustration when you have to slow down passing moored boats or meet queues at the locks, you won't get the major benefit from boating – relaxation.
Get a map or, even better, one of the waterways guides available for your route and work out nice comfortable days of travelling that allow you time to stop and explore an historic town or enjoy a pint or two in a village pub. A good hire-boat operator will discuss with you the routes available.
Steering a boat really is not difficult, but learning all the little knacks that make life easier will take somewhat longer. Slower is almost always better than faster on the waterways and give yourself time, as well as working out in advance the possible consequences of any manoeuvre you plan to make. Other than that just keep to the right when passing oncoming boats. There is no driving test to pass and you will be given a full handover by the boat operator.
At first sight, the cost of hiring a boat for a holiday seems considerable, easily £1,000 plus a week, and more in the high season, but that is for the whole family. Go abroad and you wouldn't blink at paying several hundred pounds a head, so break down the cost on a per person basis and it becomes very competitive.
One word of warning – boating can become a bit of an obsession. Don't take my word for it, as I wrote this one couple were on their umpteenth hire – this time a six-week break on a hire boat from Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union canal – and it all started on the spur of the moment.
Maggie and Wilf Loynd are 62 and 67 respectively and run a builders' merchant on the Island of Mull in the Hebrides – it takes them two days just to get to the hire base.
Maggie told me: “We spent a few nights on a boat in Little Venice owned by an acquaintance of mine through my days flying hot air balloons, but boats never again crossed my mind until our area won a government bid to get free computers.
“One of the first days I logged on there was a top of the page advert for Chas Hardern. I thought 'different' and booked a week on the famous Mr. Todd – every where we went people knew the boat.
“It took us a week to get to wind at Frankton junction for the Montgomery and back to Chas at Beeston. By now both of us were sodden but hooked.
“We then regularly booked one of Chas’s boats every year, growing to twice a year with some other firms and by 2008 took Yavanna through the Severn and the Avon on a four week holiday which we extended to 5 weeks on the way as we were enjoying so much.”
They have been regulars on the Shropshire Union and Llangollen canals as well as trying out the Grand Union. Maggie say the best thing about a holiday on a hire boat is “complete relaxation, no responsibilities or worries.”
Even though they insist they hire because it would be impossibly difficult to own and look after a boat at least two days' travel from their island home – that's the reason they take four five or six week breaks. - the thought has more than crossed their minds, especially Wilf's it seems.
“Yes, we keep dreaming about having our own boat,” says Maggie, “and Wilf is always on the internet looking at the brokerages. Please just give us the cash! A boat share would not, I think, suit either of us. Being tied down to a particular fortnight rather than saying 'Let’s go now' is not us.
“We love the easy going camaraderie of folk on the canals. We have met some wonderful friends on live-aboards and in canal based businesses and are looking forward to meeting up with old and new this visit.”
Their love of canals has been passed on to their 31-year-old son and 29-year-old daughter. “He has come with us several times and hired with friends once and our daughter has come with us several times too. They both enjoy the canals.” After this was written they bit the bullet and bought a boat of their own.
So are Maggie and Wilf, just a relaxed older couple – well not really – they were both extremely active in motor sport, Maggie (Anderson) in saloon car racing and Wilf rallying (in the same era as Chris Coburn) so that the switch to 3 to 4 mph is something friends find difficult to grasp. Perhaps it has more in common with Maggie's earlier hobby of hot air ballooning?
And that rich background is something I find common among boaters of all descriptions. Many are people who have led interesting lives and want to go on being interested in life. Boating, especially travelling widely, gives them that ever changing interest as the scenery, the places and the history flow past their windows – or portholes.